A flood of new peace deals for Israel, creating diplomatic relations with Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Sudan, has the potential to remake the Middle East. Israel and its new friends can chart a course that will see an alliance system emerge that underpins the first new peace deals Israel has made in a quarter-century. However, the rapidity with which these relations have emerged and the sense that they are part of a series of transactions being pushed by the White House mean that they could be impacted by any changes in Washington's policies.
To encourage the new relationships with Israel, the U.S. looks set to sell Abu Dhabi the fifth-generation game-changing F-35 that will help make the UAE one of the most advanced militaries in the Middle East. Similarly, the potential deal with Sudan has been sweetened by removing the country from a list of state sponsors of terrorism. F-35s could have been sold to the UAE without a deal with Israel, and Sudan's new government could have been removed from the terrorism list without a link to normalizing relations. Both countries also deny that there is a transactional nature to their openings with Israel. That is because Israel offers a lot to Sudan and the UAE. For the UAE, it means cooperation on strategic assessments of the region, such as dealing with threats from Iran. For Sudan, Israel's technology and drip irrigation could be helpful.
However, appearances matter. President Donald Trump put Israeli Prime Minister on speakerphone when discussing whether Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden could have made the recent deals. There is a sense that Trump has tended to push a transactional form of foreign policy—whether in the form of pushing billions in new deals with Saudi Arabia, claiming the U.S. will stay in Syria to guard oil wells, or asking NATO countries and South Korea to increase military spending in return for U.S. defensive support.
If you conduct foreign policy as a transaction, then there is always a chance that if some part of the transaction doesn't hold up, or if the person in the White House changes, that the foreign state will renege. That means that to cement Israel's relationships with the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and potentially other deals with Oman, Saudi Arabia or several other countries, the U.S. needs to continue to be a stakeholder—or Israel and its new friends need to move quickly to cement the deals.
Israel has had pragmatic relationships in the past. It reached out to Iran and Turkey in the 1950s, when Arab states were hostile, and then it signed peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan while never cultivating a particularly close relationship with either. Iran's regime is today the most hostile country to Israel and Turkey—and Turkey, which still has relations with Israel, has vowed to "liberate" Muslim areas of Jerusalem from the Jewish state. This shows how Israel's relationships in the region tend to be precarious.
How can relations with the UAE, Bahrain and Sudan learn from the challenges of the past?
People-to-people relationships are essential to developing ties between Israel and its Arab partners.
First, Israel and the UAE already share a worldview on the region, and can be part of an emerging U.S. alliance with India and Greece that would create a nexus of power from the Mediterranean Sea to the Indian Ocean. This is predicated upon a strategic partnership with Washington built on F-35s for Israel, Greece and the UAE, and a close partnership between Israel and India that already exists. People-to-people relationships are also essential to developing ties between Abu Dhabi and Jerusalem. The business hubs in Tel Aviv and Dubai offer excellent opportunities. Already, there is cooperation on the medical front against COVID-19. The first ship has arrived in Israel from the Emirates, as well as the first flights.
The foundation for Israel's new friendships are being built. Now, the countries need to fill the new edifice with economic, cultural and, eventually, defense ties. Some of those ties are being pushed by Washington, but in the wake of the U.S. election, it is important that these new friendships grow on their own accord. Collective focus from Israeli, Emirati and other regional leaders, businessmen and civil society organizations can help make that happen.
Seth Frantzman is a Ginsburg-Milstein Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum and senior Middle East correspondent at The Jerusalem Post.